I’m currently teaching The Lord of the Rings in my British Fantasy class and we have been trying to understand the meaning of Sauron’s ring. My go-to strategy for wrestling with any literary symbol is to look at how it moves us, author and readers both. How does it help us make sense of the world? How does it aid us in rising to historical, psychological, and existential challenges?
I have therefore suggested to my students that, in their journal entries on the novel, they choose one amongst a number of possible readings of the ring and explore it fully. Here’s a sampling of what different approaches might look like:
Biographical-Historical Approach: A Response to Cataclysmic Events
Tolkien was a man who experienced, sometimes at close range, the horrors of the 20th century. He was a soldier in the World War I trenches and, during the years that he was writing Lord of the Rings (1937-1949), he witnessed the victories of fascism in continental Europe, World War II, Stalin’s takeover of Eastern Europe, and the development of the atom bomb. Although he was correct in insisting that his novel should not be read as an allegory for World War II—that would limit its meaning—there is no doubt that he was working to process the horrific abuses of power that he was seeing. Lord of the Rings has an epic dimension in part because Tolkien was witnessing various national powers attempting to take over the rest of the world. Capturing that lust for power as the lure of the “One Ring” gave him a framework of understandng.
A Genre Approach: Fantasy as a Response to Modernity
Although Lord of the Rings established the fantasy novel as we have come to know it (it trails only Tale of Two Cities amongst bestselling novels with over 150 million copies sold), there were already vibrant fantasy works before Tolkien and before the horrors of the 20th century. One can see much of 19th century fantasy literature as a reaction against modernity itself, with multiple authors dismayed at how industrialization was wreaking havoc upon rural England. In his book Fantasy: The Liberation of the Imagination, Richard Mathews notes that the very success of the scientific and industrial revolutions, powered by the Protestant work ethic and philosophically bolstered by utilitarianism, led to the emergence of the realistic novel. (After all, people wanted to understand what these new developments were all about—see last week’s post about Moll Flanders as an example.) The gothic novels, nonsense poems, fairy stories, and medieval fantasies arose as a reaction. As Mathews notes, the popular imagination in England (also the United States) “was nearly starved for fantasy”:
By the start of the twentieth century, fantasy was an established mode for serious adult literature. Although it clearly enjoyed an international currency, it seems to have emerged most conspicuously as a fully distinct genre in England and the United States, to a large extent because literary realms was so dominant there. Both countries were at the forefront of the industrial revolution and at the cutting edge of scientific discover at the very time when fantasy took shape. In many ways, science absorbed supernatural power; it evoked awe and wonder with its apparent magic. These factors, coupled with the relative absence of universal folkloric and mythic traditions in England and America, contributed to the formation of modern fantasy as a distinct literary form in these countries where the popular imagination was nearly starved for fantasy.
It’s not just the images within Lord of the Rings that signal Tolkien’s distress about his increasingly industrialized world. (Saruman’s industrialization at Isengaard has a whiff of Stalinism to it while the increasing power of the orcs may echo Tolkien’s concern about the rise of the working class, not only in the Soviet Union but in England as well.) Tolkien’s entire project—his need to create a mind-boggling fantasy universe, complete with complex genealogies and multiple languages—reveals him as an obsessive driven to create a world to hide out in. The ring, in this context, is the modern world that cannot be stopped, even with the defeat of Hitler—just as (so Galadriel tells Frodo) the elves must eventually depart from Middle Earth even though the ring has been destroyed. Lord of the Rings has an elegiac feel to it.
A Religious Approach: Wrestling with Sin
As an ardent Catholic, Tolkien saw the historical times testing his faith: how should he as a Christian stand up to evil in the world? Frodo, functioning as a Christian everyman, feels the pull within himself to join the dark side, and he also sees others around him, most notably Boromir, arguing that one must appropriate dark measures to fight the darkness. Frodo is not sinless and in the end requires something akin to an act of grace to conquer his own pride, his will to power. But he has prepared himself to receive that act of grace by fully acknowledging his sinfulness, journeying directly into his inmost core, his interior Land of Mordor. Along the same lines, because he humbly acknowledges that he is Gollum’s brother—by forgiving Gollum he forgives himself—he is able to triumph over the fires of hell.
Psychological Approach: A Journey of Self Discovery
My students have been reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and, for Campbell, Frodo’s journey is a journey to discover his true self. His destiny is not to live a life of quiet desperation in the shire. Rather, he must “accept the call to adventure” (aided by supernatural guide Gandalf) and find the hero buried within. On the way, he is swallowed by a metaphorical whale (see yesterday’s post), he meets a goddess (Galadriel), and he undergoes many trials. The Oedipus story is central to Campbell, and one can see Sauron as the tyrant father. If Frodo does not break free from this father, he will fail to tap into his creative potential and become instead a wraith-like shadow. Destroying the ring is his break with this father, and once he succeeds, the father becomes benign, Gandalf the White. Frodo has achieved “at-one-ment” with him and found a deep peace (apotheosis).
Only his journey is not yet done. He must save his society as well as himself, and he crosses the “return threshold” and scours the shire. The “elixir” or “boon” that he brings back is his new maturity. Although Frodo himself does not become king (or rather, mayor), Sam does.
Seeing the book through Campbell’s lens helps explain why the book has such a hold on adolescents. (I have a prized letter from Tolkien from when I wrote him a fan letter at 11.) When we are teenagers, we feel ourselves to be no more than diminutive hobbits, but Tolkien lets us know that we are potential heroes.
I’ll report back on which approaches attract my students.